England manager Gareth Southgate admitted his side still have a long way to go to become a “top team” after their first qualifying loss in 10 years on Friday as the Czech Republic came from behind to win 2-1 in Prague.
The Three Lions could have secured their place at Euro 2020 with victory and got off to a great start through Harry Kane’s early penalty.
However, Jakub Brabec quickly levelled for the impressive Czechs and substitute Zdenek Ondrasek struck the winner five minutes from time to inflict England’s first qualifying defeat in 44 games since a 1-0 loss to Ukraine in 2009.
“Clearly that’s a night we did not want to be a part of. We didn’t play well enough, it’s as simple as that,” said Southgate. “We’ve always maintained there is a lot of work to be done to be a really top team. Tonight was clear evidence of that.”
England still top the group thanks to their better head-to-head record with the Czechs on 12 points, but now have work to do in their final three qualifiers, starting with a visit to Bulgaria on Monday.
“To sail through a qualifying group with no issues is unusual so we have to respond and I expect us to do that,” added Southgate. “Football is all about responding to setbacks. We haven’t had too many so it feels even more unpleasant. None of us like it, but that’s the reality.”
England had plundered 19 goals in their first four qualifiers, including a 5-0 thrashing of the Czechs back in March, and another comfortable evening seemed in store when the visitors went in front after just five minutes.
Raheem Sterling sped in behind the Czech defence and as the Manchester City forward cut inside, he was brought down by Lukas Masopust.
From the resulting penalty, Kane confidently slotted home for his 27th international goal.
However, rather than going onto showcase why they will be among the favourites to win Euro 2020 with an abundance of attacking talent and home advantage on their side for most of the tournament, England showed the defensive frailties that could easily cost them next summer.
“It’s a bit of a wake-up call,” said Kane. “We’re still in a good position so there’s no need to panic, but we’ve still got stuff to work on, as you could see tonight.”
The hosts, ranked 44th in the world, caused problems for the World Cup semi-finalists all night and levelled within four minutes.
England’s defending was found wanting twice as Ondrej Celustka won the first header and Brabec bundled the ball in at the back post.
Southgate had rewarded Mason Mount’s bright start to the season with Chelsea with a first international start.
But with Mount in an advanced midfield role, Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice were overrun behind him as the Czechs dominated possession.
“It’s clear we’ve got to improve without the ball,” added Southgate. “That’s something we’ve spoken about all week and we didn’t get the reaction we needed today. It’s not the time to look at individuals. I’ve got to get the team back on track for Monday.”
The half-time break gave Southgate the chance to reshape his midfield and England had chances to win the game as Tomas Vaclik denied Sterling and Kane.
But Jordan Pickford was also forced into fine saves from Masopust’s dipping effort and Alex Kral’s driven shot behind at the near post as the Czechs continued to threaten.
And the Everton goalkeeper was helpless when Masopust broke down the right and crossed for Ondrasek to seal a famous victory.
“I’m terribly happy I’ve got the chance although I didn’t expect it. It’s incredible,” said the FC Dallas forward Ondrasek. “I think my dad had tears in his eyes and it was the first time in my life I saw him like this. An incredible night really.”